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Farmers Help to Improve Water Quality

By Ivan Kelly, ASSAP Adviser, Teagasc Galway/Clare Farmers throughout Ireland are successfully working with Advisors to achieve positive water quality results according to The Agricultural Sustainability Support and Advisory Programme (ASSAP) interim report, which was recently published.

Ireland is legally obliged to protect and improve its water quality by the EU Water Framework Directive. To help meet it objectives, ASSAP was set up in 2018. The Programme moves the focus away from enforcement to a new approach, where advice and collaboration on appropriate measures to protect water quality are agreed and implemented by farmers. Teagasc is helping lead this initiate with support from Government Departments, Dairy Sustainability Ireland and all the main farming organisations.

The recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Water Quality in Ireland 2013 – 2018 Report showed an overall decline of water quality in Ireland. The main area for concern is rivers, where water quality has declined by 5.5% over this period. Losses from agriculture are identified as a key pressure. However, on a positive note, the report shows that water catchments under the remit of ASSAP have seen significant improvement.

What issues have been Identified?

The Local Authority Waters Programme (LAWPRO) scientists sample the water quality in the streams and refer any issues to the relevant implementation body (for example forestry services, EPA, Irish Water etc.). Where Agriculture is deemed a pressure, a written referral goes to the local ASSAP Advisor. The significant issue, whether it is Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Sediment or Pesticide will guide the suitable mitigation measures on the farm.

Phosphorus & Sediment – Losses that typically occur on heavy soils when water is running off the land after periods of high rainfall. The implementation of appropriate buffer strips and prevention of livestock access to streams/rivers will help to reduce such losses from occurring. Improved management of wet areas with close proximity to the stream or rivers is also important. These critical source areas (CSA’s) are more prone to nutrient and sediment loss during wet weather than the surrounding fields and small changes to management in these areas can help reduce the impact on water quality. Scientific assessments in waterbodies also show evidence that land drainage can increases sediment and nutrient losses. Best practice with slope, vegetation cover, drain maintenance and location are important. Interventions in land management, such as drainage, are particularly farm and soil type specific.

Nitrogen – Improving the nutrient use efficiency on the farm with regard to Nitrogen fertilisers and slurries, will be crucial to reducing nitrate losses to waters, particularly on intensively grazed free draining soil. Farmers need to be particularly careful when using Nitrogen in early spring and late in the grazing season, as growth rates are lower and excess Nitrogen is easily lost to rivers, lakes and groundwater.

Pesticide Loss - Implementing best management practice at storing, handling and applying herbicides is essential to avoid contamination of water. Breaches of pesticides limits in drinking water have declined in recent years but further improvement is needed, with MCPA, commonly used in the control of rushes, a particular concern.

How does the ASSAP Service work?

The ASSAP Advisor contacts the farmer to explain the water quality issue in the local stream and offers a visit to assess their farm. In general, an Advisor will assess the land and drains near rivers and streams, the farmyard, use of fertiliser and pesticides along with general land management. The Advisor and farmer will agree on what changes (if any) the farmer should focus on to reduce the risk to water quality. The practical advice will be designed to ‘break the pathway’ and prevent nutrients and sediment from entering water. A written summary of the advice and actions will be provided and a time-frame for completion agreed.

To date, ASSAP advisors have completed over 1,500 farm assessments. Diffuse losses, the loss of Phosphorus (P), sediment and Nitrogen (N) and pesticides coming from the landscape make up over 75% of the issues impacting water quality. However, these losses can be greatly reduced in many cases by implementing small management changes. It is encouraging that over 90% of farmers contacted have positively engaged with the Programme and agreed to implement measures to protect water quality. In 2020 and 2021, ASSAP will continue to provide farmers with the help and advice to increase the sustainability of their farming practice with the hope of further improvements in water quality in the years to come.

For any query on the ASSAP Programme contact ivan.kelly@teagasc.ie